Welcome to college, the ultimate gateway drug. You have now entered a realm where you can experiment with all kinds of things without parental supervision—including your capacity to derange yourself on all kinds of drugs.
You are young (congratulations!) and I am not. I've pretty much taken (or watched people take) all the drugs. I have watched drugs make people full of joyous wonder and full of crippling pain. Drugs accentuate people and things. They are as difficult and strange as life itself.
I've also spent the past few years writing about drug use, drug users, and how law enforcement intersects with druggies in Seattle, in America at large, and abroad. Among my list of friends and acquaintances are recreational users, junkies, teetotalers, drug dealers, drug manufacturers, harm-reduction specialists (that's a term you should know—people in the field of "harm reduction" maintain that some folks will always take drugs, and it's their societal duty to make those people less likely to hurt themselves and others in the process), drug lawyers, epidemiologists, research physicians, social workers, drug-policy wonks, and many people whose specialties stretch across multiple categories. But I'm still no expert. Mind-altering substances and addiction remain a profound mystery.
Why do we get fucked up? Why do we want to get fucked up? Why does wanting to get fucked up sometimes hijack our brains so thoroughly that we are willing to poison everything we love—friends, family, lovers, wisdom, work, our own psychological and physiological integrity—to change the way our brains perceive the world?
Nobody that I know of has found satisfying answers to these questions yet, but I'll share with you what little I've learned. Some drugs will suit you better than others—maybe pot makes you paranoid or cocaine makes you an asshole or tequila lands you in jail. Check in with yourself every now and then and see how you're doing. If you feel like you're going off the rails, don't be ashamed to look for help. Addiction isn't a moral failing—it's a roll of the genetic dice. And, as with most things in life, it is far, far better to recognize a problem and deal with it than to let it fester. If you get too fucked up too often, you will make yourself and the people who love you totally fucking miserable. Try to avoid that.
If you intend to fool around with drugs, please clip out this line from Othello—act two, scene three—and pin it on the wall of your bedroom: "Oh God! That men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause transform ourselves into beasts!"
Hopefully, that will keep things in perspective. Good luck.
• Cannabis is a medicinal and recreational drug that will probably be legal within your lifetime. Luckily for you cannabis fans out there, Seattle is home to some of the best marijuana on the planet, as well as pot-friendly voters and politicians. But don't get carried away. While neurobiologists are still learning about the brain's cannabinoid system—which is full of surprises—cannabis use is correlated with what scientists call "the extinction of memory." And a working memory, as you know, is an important tool for people who have to study, take tests, write papers, etc., etc. Enjoy your pot sparingly for now. You'll have plenty of time to obliterate your memory in the future.
• Hallucinogens like mushrooms and LSD are a college-druggie favorite. Depending on the dosage, setting, and (unpredictable) reactions of individual brain chemistries, they can crack open the universe and bring profound insights about the wholeness and beauty of everything, or send a person barreling down a terrible tube of fear and anxiety. If you plan to take hallucinogens, find a safe and comfortable place, eat a light, bland meal beforehand, and make sure you have lots of water as well as a "lifeguard" who can help everyone stay safe and sane. Salvia divinorum is a smokable hallucinogen that makes users very high for a very short period of time. Many find the smoke acrid and the effects unpleasant—you can watch a variety of people embarrassing themselves by briefly losing their minds on salvia on YouTube.
• Ecstasy is a popular dance and sex drug that acts on the brain like a combination of stimulant and mild hallucinogen. The same trip guidelines for hallucinogens (light meal, lots of water, safe place) apply to ecstasy.
• Cocaine is typically more trouble than it's worth. It's expensive, it's cut with all kinds of poisons (according to a Stranger study, 91% of Seattle's cocaine contains levamisole, a cattle-deworming drug that can obliterate your immune system), it's funding the current bloodbath in Mexico, and regular use—whether snorting, smoking, or injecting—tends to harden people's souls, making them selfish, aggressive, rude, and worse at everything (academics, art, sports, empathy). Science doesn't have a satisfying answer for why that happens, but I've watched it over and over again. To learn more about the problems associated with cocaine, see www.thestranger.com/cocaine.
• Methamphetamine is like cocaine, but made entirely in laboratories by people who don't care about you. It delays orgasm in men and makes people feel all shiny and special. Meth addiction is an ugly thing—anorexia, paranoia, twitching, ravaged skin and teeth, insomnia, tremors, heart attack, stroke—and can be extremely difficult to break.
• Opiates are very popular these days. They make some people feel like they're in an earthly paradise where they want for nothing (food, sex, warmth, conversation). They make some people nervous and barfy. And, with enough time, they will turn pretty much anyone into a robot programmed exclusively for narcotic longing. Being addicted to opiates—from oxy to heroin—is like having each cell in your body suffering from both heartbreak and food poisoning. The short-term solution to the problem is more opiates. The long-term solution to the problem is powering through the misery of withdrawal. If you must use opiates, use them very sparingly and never, ever take them (recreationally) for two days in a row. That is the first step down a hallway that leads to metabolic addiction, a condition you will not have noticed entering until you feel the first painful thrums of withdrawal shivering through your body. That is not a feeling you want to experience.
One increasingly popular alternative to opiates is kratom, a leaf from Indochina that has opiate-like properties but is thought to be less addictive. (There haven't been many scientific studies on the long-term effects of kratom yet.) It is a controlled substance in Asia, where it's used like methadone to wean opiate addicts off their habits, but is not yet a controlled substance in the United States. Typically, users make a tea from the crushed-up leaves.
A Final Note That Could Save Your Life
Take half a dose or less the first time you take anything, and see how it makes you feel. Individual metabolic and brain-chemical reactions vary widely. If you're with someone who is overdosing on anything—lost consciousness, stopped breathing, too hot or cold and clammy— CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY AND BEGIN ARTIFICIAL RESPIRATION. Last year, the Washington state legislature passed a "911 Good Samaritan Law" that protects people who call 911 to stop an overdose from prosecution for drug possession. (If you elect decent people, you get decent laws.) By calling 911 for an overdosing friend, you are not risking prosecution. By not calling 911, you are risking a death. See www.stopoverdose .org for more information.
Should you choose to experiment with drugs—including booze—remember that honesty, integrity, and refusal to be pressured into doing stupid things will serve you well. And please don't romanticize the drug habits of famous people like Miles Davis, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Billie Holiday, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Lenny Bruce, Kurt Cobain, Ol' Dirty Bastard, or anybody else. You are not, and cannot be, them. You can only be you.
As comedian (and recovering addict) Russell Brand argued in the Guardian when Amy Winehouse died: Some people have talent. Some people have the addiction disease. Some people have both. But, for the love of god, do not confuse one with the other.